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Difficulties in Defining the Concept of God: Kierkegaard in Dialogue with Levinas, Buber, and Rosenzweig


This article investigates difficulties in defining the concept of God by focusing on the question of what it means to understand God as a ‘person.’ This question is explored with respect to the work of Søren Kierkegaard, in dialogue with Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Emmanuel Levinas. Thereby, the following three questions regarding divine ‘personhood’ come into view: First, how can God be a partner of dialogue if he at the same time remains unknown and unthinkable, a limit-concept of understanding? Second, if God is love in person and at the same time a spiritual reality ‘between’ human agents, in what ways are his personal and trans-personal traits related to each other? Third, what exactly is revealed through God’s ‘name’? By way of an inconclusive conclusion, divine personhood is discussed in regard to prayer, where the problems of predication that arise in third-personal speech about God are linked with the second-personal encounter with God.

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  1. 1.

    In Patrologia Latina 64, 1343, the formulation differs slightly: persona est naturae rationalis individua substantia. Cf. Schlapkohl (1999).

  2. 2.

    The credit for correcting decisive aspects of Buber’s polemic perspective on Kierkegaard belongs to Hugo Bergman and his by now classic study Dialogical Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Buber, which appeared in Hebrew in 1974. Bergman basically juxtaposes four book parts on (1) Kierkegaard, (2) “transitional thinkers from Feuerbach to Rosenstock,” (3) Rosenzweig, and (4) Buber. The task today consists in discussing the concord or discord of these thinkers. It is debatable whether Kierkegaard is a philosopher of dialogue in line with Rosenstock, Rosenzweig, and Buber. Bergman uses a (perhaps too) broad definition of dialogical philosophy, which allegedly views reality as a dialogue “between man and God, man and man, and man and nature” and has affinities with existentialism in that the participants of the dialogue are “individuals,” “not abstractions but men of flesh and blood” (Bergman 1991, p. 2). For an overview of the scholarly debate on the relation between Kierkegaard and Buber, see Šajda (2011).

    To my knowledge, Michael Oppenheim’s unpublished doctoral dissertation Sören Kierkegaard and Franz Rosenzweig: The Movement From Philosophy To Religion (microfilm at University of California, Santa Barbara 1976) is the first comparative study on Kierkegaard and Rosenzweig. Oppenheim (1999) also includes Buber and Levinas in the comparison, yet the subject matter of this article is not the concept of God, but “Four Narratives on the Interhuman.” See Welz (2011b) for a review of the literature on the relation between Kierkegaard and Rosenzweig.

    Among the first book-length projects to consider Kierkegaard and Levinas together are the following single-authored and edited volumes: Westphal (2008), Welz (2008), Welz and Verstrynge (eds.) (2008), Simmons and Wood (eds.) (2008), and Sheil (2010).

  3. 3.

    “Det drejer sig om at fatte paradokset som paradoks, og det vil sige at forstå, at det ikke kan forstås. Vi er med Climacus i den menneskelige forståelses sfære. Hvis vi kunne komme uden om eller bag om vores forståelse til det, vi ikke forstår, ville vi kunne springe over os selv. Det er med vores forståelse, at vi ikke forstår.”

  4. 4.

    Cf. PF 49 / SKS 4, 253: “Dersom Paradoxet og Forstanden støde sammen i den fælleds Forstaaelse af deres Forskjellighed, da er Sammenstødet lykkeligt […].”

  5. 5.

    Levinas repeatedly criticizes an idealist (Hegelian) philosophy of the All, which aspires to the identity of thought and being, as well as any other philosophical projects that exclude the unfathomable transcendence of the (divine or human) Other by relying on an ontological (or onto-theo-logical) totality.

  6. 6.

    See also Welz (2011a, p. 76f), pace Chalier (2002), who claims that Levinas accepts the heteronomy that Kant rejects, and Westphal (2008, pp. 75–93), who speaks of “The Trauma of Transcendence as Heteronomous Intersubjectivity” and regards the responsible self as “triply heteronomous before transcendence,” namely in terms of “its being, its knowing, and its doing” (ibid., p. 107). For a more nuanced view, which takes into account the reversal of heteronomy into autonomy, see e.g. Holte (2015, pp. 140–176), who describes how Levinas reconciles autonomy and heteronomy.

  7. 7.

    I agree with Jeffrey Dudiak (2008, p. 112) that “God, in Levinas, is the name for that which binds me irremissibly to the other human being, or is this binding itself, in a binding that is one of the core meanings of religion.” Dudiak does not think of God “as the other end from us of an ‘intentional’ relationship (as we find in Kierkegaard) […], but as prior to any intentionality” (ibid.), thereby rejecting Westphal’s point that an “inverse intentionality” is at play in the God-relation (cf. ibid., p. 120, n. 49). In contrast to Dudiak, I do not think we should discard the notion of intentionality in this context. Inverse intentionality still presupposes intentionality in its ordinary sense (the object-directness of consciousness), without which we would not even notice another’s focus of attention being directed at us. Reducing God to an intentional object (the noema of thought or belief) is, of course, inadequate, and ascribing noetic processes to God might seem to be too speculative. If God as Wholly Other is also the creator and redeemer of humankind, he must be prior to and higher than human intentionality, both preceding and exceeding human experience. However, the question of whether he himself has personal traits or is rather the non-personal origin of personhood and the impersonal condition of possibility for ethical responsibility and self-obligation is still unanswered.

  8. 8.

    This does, of course, not mean that love is irrelevant for Levinas (see, e.g., Beals 2007, Chapter 3. on “Levinasian Love”); it only means that he remains silent about divine love.

  9. 9.

    Unless indicated otherwise, quotes from the Bible are cited according to the New International Version (NIV).

  10. 10.

    For a more detailed account, see Welz (2008), pp. 108–116, especially pp. 114–116.

  11. 11.

    It is therefore inaccurate to describe Kierkegaard and Levinas’ “fundamental disagreement” as follows: “Levinas insists that the neighbor is always the middle term between me and God, while Kierkegaard insists that it is God who is always the middle term between me and my neighbor” (Westphal 2008, p. 5).

  12. 12.

    Lincoln is aware of the problem (cf. ibid., p. 463) and therefore distinguishes between the finite and the absolute subject of love; nevertheless, he speaks of human love as a ‘direct phenomenon’ of divine love (cf. ibid., p. 208) and of divine love as “dem eigentlichen, transzendenten Subjekt des Handelns” (ibid., p. 320).

  13. 13.

    Leslie Zeigler (1960, p.  82) correctly points out that, for Kierkegaard, God is “the Personal Spirit who can be known by man only as he makes himself known to man.” My reading deviates from hers when she claims that “the category of ‘the individual’ means that, for Kierkegaard, human existence is constituted by individual persons in relationship,” while Buber locates reality “between persons rather than within them” (ibid., p. 88)—for two reasons: (1) Kierkegaard’s relational self is constituted by relating to itself via relating to others, such that it would not make sense to postulate the existence of individual persons apart from the relationships in which they are involved. (2) Kierkegaard’s notion of God as middle term between persons does not imply that spiritual reality can be confined to a place ‘within’ a person. Thus the ‘between’ and the ‘within’ are not an either/or—neither for Kierkegaard nor for Buber. Let me use Buber’s metaphor to explain this: we could not breathe at all if the air only surrounded us, but did not enter our lungs. If the spirit is like air, it must be everywhere.

    Zeigler then argues that the I-Thou relation, upon which Buber’s philosophy of dialogue is built, does not give us knowledge of that to which we become related: “We can only meet that which remains undisclosed” (ibid., p. 93). In her view, Buber’s philosophy denies direct knowledge of persons attained by personal encounter, while for Kierkegaard “such personal knowledge is the essential knowledge,” which “requires God as the middle term and hence is grounded in revelation and response, that is, an act of God and an act of man” (ibid.). In viewing God as a divine agent, she overlooks the same point as Lincoln: that God is not a loving subject on a par with human lovers.

  14. 14.

    The German original (G 62) runs as follows: “Wer Gott liebt, liebt das Ideal und liebt Gott mehr als es. Und von ihm, nicht von einem Ideal, […] von ihm, der absoluten Person Gott, weiß er sich geliebt. Heißt das, daß Gott Person ‘ist’? Der Absolutheitscharakter seiner Person, die Paradoxie der Paradoxien, verbietet solch eine Aussage. Es heißt nur, daß er als Person liebt und als Person geliebt werden will.” Cf. EG 60, where Person is translated as “personality.”

  15. 15.

    Apart from my 2008 dissertation, there is no secondary literature on the connection between Kierkegaard and Rosenzweig regarding the problem of language as related to the question of God’s personhood, so I will concentrate on the primary sources and explain my finding, which was a genuine discovery.

  16. 16.

    James 1:17 is a defining text for this tradition. It was a favorite text of Pseudo-Dionysius and Eriugena, Eckhart devoted two important sermons to it, and Nicholas of Cusa explicated his metaphysics with an exegesis of the text in his De Dato Patris Luminum. Cf. Kangas (2000).

  17. 17.

    For further examples of Kierkegaard’s use of metaphor and the positive role of images that are not opposed to reality and do not merely illustrate, but perform it, see Purkarthofer (2000).

  18. 18.

    Cf. his self-critical letters to ‘Gritli’ (Margrit Rosenstock-Huessy) of July and August 1921 (in: GB 748ff).

  19. 19.

    I owe this idea to Vincent Delecroix, whom I wish to thank for his comments on my above-mentioned Copenhagen lecture (delivered on August 27, 2014).

  20. 20.

    The German original runs as follows: “Denn die Offenbarung begründet ein Oben und Unten […] und ein Früher und Später […]. Das Grenzenlose (‘Absolute’!) steigt zur Erde nieder und zieht von hier aus, von dem Orte seines Niedersteigens, Grenzen in das Meer des Raums und die Strömung der Zeit. […] Es ist nichts mehr überall und nirgends, sondern es sind Richtlatten eingeschlagen; man weiß wo man steht und man weiß das Ziel. Statt des Überall des unnennbaren Gefühls das ‘den Finger drauf!’ des Namens. Und zwar des Namens, der nicht ‘Schall und Rauch’ ist. Nicht Schall und Rauch, sondern Wort und Feuer. Wo das Wort gehört wird, da ist es vorbei mit dem Schweigen, der Stille, der Stummheit, und auch dem Lärm, dem Schrei, dem Tierlaut. Und wo das Feuer brennt, da gibt es keine Kälte und kein Dunkel. Es gibt zwar noch all das, aber eben nur dort wo das Wort und das Feuer noch nicht hingedrungen ist; aber es sind ihnen ja keine Grenzen gesetzt; das Wort tönt fort durch die Zeit, von Mund zu Mund, und das Feuer breitet sich aus im Raum. Eben durch das Einbrechen des Namens in das Chaos des Unbenannten, das so und auch anders heißen kann (und das überhaupt ‘auch anders kann’), ist der Schauplatz und der Inhalt der Weltgeschichte entstanden. […] Gott ist nicht alles, sondern ‘von ihm und zu ihm’ ist alles. Also gelehrt ausgedrückt: er steht zu allem in Beziehung. Er ist nur einiges, genau gesagt nur eines, der Punkt des Herniedersteigens, der Horizont in dem sich Himmel und Erde berühren. […] Die Wirklichkeit des Ziels in der Welt der Wirklichkeiten, das ist was ich brauche. […] Praktisch kommt es sogar nur darauf an, daß man mit dieser Wirklichkeit zusammenwächst. ‘Gott im Himmel’ ist durchaus Nebensache.”

  21. 21.

    Bergman (1991, p. 191) underlines the social function of calling God by name. While we need a human being’s name in order to gain access to him or her, we can address God even in silence; nonetheless, it makes sense to call him by name: “God has a name for the sake of man and also for the sake of the world. He allows man to call him by name so that those who do so will become a congregation.”

  22. 22.

    Kierkegaard’s 1844 upbuilding discourse “One Who Prays Aright Struggles in Prayer and Is Victorious—in That God Is Victorious” illuminates this process and the problem of determining criteria for adequate speech about and to God. For a discussion of the intellectual and existential moves in this discourse in comparison with the work of the Jewish aphorist Elazar Benyoëtz, see Welz (2014).

  23. 23.

    Cf. Preul (2007, p. 111) (my own translation of “Lieber Gott, wenn’s dich gibt, rette meine Seele, wenn ich eine habe”). Unfortunately, Preul does not give a reference to the Voltaire-quote.

  24. 24.

    In German: “[…] weil und indem er uns zur Person macht—‘macht’ in dem Doppelsinne des Daseinlassens und des Geleits zur Erfüllung der Bestimmung unseres Personseins […].”


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Correspondence to Claudia Welz.

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This article is the revised version of a lecture entitled “Difficulties in Defining the Concept of God—Kierkegaard and Jewish Philosophy of Religion” given at the conference Kierkegaard and the Conception of God in Contemporary Thought, which took place at the Søren Kierkegaard Research Centre, University of Copenhagen, on August 25–27, 2014.

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Welz, C. Difficulties in Defining the Concept of God: Kierkegaard in Dialogue with Levinas, Buber, and Rosenzweig. Int J Philos Relig 80, 61–83 (2016).

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  • God
  • Kierkegaard
  • Levinas
  • Buber
  • Rosenzweig
  • Prayer
  • Personhood